By 2013, it was well and truly clear that Stephen King was his own genre, and that he competes largely with himself. This is likely why, outside of The Dark Tower series and Black House, that he had never really dabbled with sequels until Doctor Sleep. That King chose to make his first major sequel to the book that became one of the most iconic horror films of all time — a film that, coincidentally, he famously really did not like — was daring. Doctor Sleep is the thirty six years on sequel to The Shining, through which King follows up on what happened to Danny after the Overlook Hotel was neutralised. And it works: Doctor Sleep is excellent latter day King, a successor to The Dark Tower, a pre-cursor to Mr. Mercedes, and a novel that doesn’t try to shamelessly ape its predecessor.
In The Institute, we unlock the paradox of Stephen King: much of his best work is familiar and comfortable, echoing across the years, spanning decades. However, there is such a thing as too familiar: when King uses one his skeletons but forgets to put the muscle on the bones, the books suffer. The Institute is the ghost of a Stephen King novel: it has the spirit, but not the flesh. It’s fine, but it’s not much more than that.
The biggest book of 2019 doesn’t have boy wizards in it, fake conspiracies about renaissance artists, secretly evil women, Swedish conspiracy theorists, or teenagers in battles royale. Instead, Margaret Atwood is hailed as the conquering hero, returning readers to Gilead some 34 years after the initial publication of The Handmaid’s Tale. The Testaments is not exactly the sequel everyone was clamouring for — the further adventures of Offred — but it’s the best possible use of the setting that Atwood could have employed. The Testaments is not warm and cuddly, but it takes a different tone to the nightmarish bitterness that characterised its predecessor: it fair zips along.
Kameron Hurley’s heart belongs to novels. Meet Me in the Future’s introduction tells the reader as much instantly. And yet this is her second collection (third, depending on whether you believe the book itself or Hurley’s Wikipedia). To that end, some parts of Meet Me in the Future are considerably stronger than others. These stories represent Hurley’s particular fascinations: womens’ place in society, the impermanence of bodies; plague and pathology. Some she communicates well in sparkling stories, but others collapse under their own weight.
There have been enough Stephen King adaptations in recent years that the man doesn’t need to be introduced anymore. It, the second longest of his 61 novels to date, performed remarkably well in its secretly titled Chapter One instalment of 2017. Two years later, the Loser kids are back, they’ve brought their adult counterparts with them, their film is 34 whole minutes longer, and everything is like a well worn pair of slippers.
Carol Jordan and Tony Hill have been through a lot in their eleven books together, and they each know that they wilt outside of each other’s presence. In this latest instalment, Val McDermid finally allows Carol to process the extreme PTSD that has cropped up over two and a half decades worth of adventures and, as these things go, How The Dead Speak is a progress novel in what has become an increasingly stop-start pattern for these characters.
Nathan Hill’s decade-in-the-writing debut The Nix is a densely packed novel, to the point that some might call it overstuffed. At 640 pages, cut down from the original (longhand!) 1,200 page version, Hill has a lot to say – and he says much of it very well.
Graham Norton’s first novel is small town soft crime, which some may argue is the best sort of crime (they would be wrong: the best sort of crime is the sort solved by cats). Norton’s chat show experience did not merely prepare him for a life of showing tired memes to bemused celebrities; it reveals the deep humanity that pervades Holding.
The desire to make a novel Big Little Lies is understandable. But Whisper Network, a new novel set around a lukewarm mystery at a sporting goods empire, is less like Big Little Lies than it is like fetch. Stop trying to make fetch happen.
The cat and mouse genre requires delicate calibration to work. If a reader is going to have two opposing forces driving a book’s narrative, it is often better to know one intimately and the other only in passing. Ran Will Come, the pseudonymous debut of screenwriter Thomas Holgate, gives near equal footing to its leads. It’s a bold move, and it pays off in places and confounds in others.